The Quran

The advance of the Muslim armies in the 7th century changed the world in a stunningly short period of time. Within a two decades the ancient might of the Persians was broken, their religion of Zoroastrianism doomed to near extinction. The Eastern Roman Empire, also known as the Byzantine Empire, lost their price possessions of Egypt, the levant and Syria when they lost the battle of Yarmouk after three days of brutal fighting. The Muslims would later go on to conquer ancient India, a feat that even Alexander the Great was not able to accomplish. In a single century Muslim rule extended over a vast territory on three continents. In character of their swift victory and conquest, their holy book was also a swift affair.

After the death of the prophet Muhammad the Muslims no longer had the voice of the prophet to lead them directly. His direct followers, the very men who knew the verses Muhammad taught them the most, started dying as the wars progressed. It was decided by Caliph Abu Bakr that the verses, know collectively as the Quran,  were to be collected in a single book so they would be preserved for future generations. Unlike the Bible or the Torah the Quran was composed within a single lifetime, and written in a single year. Caliph Abu Bakr died in 634 A.D., two years after the Prophet Muhammad, and historical sources claim that the Caliph held the first Quran until his death. In this blog we will explore a few interesting examples of the written Quran, starting with what is thought to be the oldest surviving manuscript.

The Birmingham Quran

The oldest surviving manuscript has only been dated by carbon dating, putting the time of writing between 568-645 A.D. The manuscript was therefore possibly written during Muhammad’s lifetime, a feat few holy books can claim. The manuscript is located in the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom within the Mingana collection. 

Originally acquired by Alphonse Mingana, it was brought to Birmingham in the 1990’s. Written on parchment the manuscript is written with two colours of ink; brown and red. The brown ink is iron gall ink, while the red ink is red lead. The original scribe or place of writing are lost to history, however a palaeographic study (the study of handwriting) has suggested that the manuscript might be part of the sixteen pages found in the Bibliothèque nationale in France. If so then this manuscript is not only the oldest dated manuscript known, it would have been part of the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As at Fustat, the first mosque build in Egypt and by extension Africa. Between the two pages of the Birmingham Quran and the sixteen pages held in France this work would comprise 45% of the Quran. Manuscripts such as these are a reminder of the need to always keep researching, as the Birmingham Manuscript was dated in 2014, two decades after having been acquired by the university.


The Paganini Quran

The Muslim world was markedly different from the Christian world, these differences going far beyond religion. The vast Muslim Caliphates dwarfed the mightiest Christian kingdoms for centuries. Medicine, science and architecture thrived in the Muslim world, and for a long time it was Europe that was seen as the underdeveloped backwater around the Mediterranean. Yet for all their advancements the Muslim world was late in adopting one of the decisive advancements of the human race; The printing press. It was this late adoption that led to one of the great ironies of history. It would be Venice, an old adversary of the Muslims world, that would claim the honour of printing the first Quran. This printed version likely intended for export to the Ottoman Empire, although the enterprise would ultimately fail completely. The entire line of books had been believed to be destroyed or lost, with explanations varying from Papal intervention to fire and even divine intervention preventing the printing process.


 Printed by Paganino Paganini and his son Alessandro in 1537/38 the book must have been quite an enterprise, involving casting an Arabic alphabet for the printing press, inverting the letters and the book itself as to read from right to left and obtaining an translated version of the Quran. The existence of the Quran as an historical fact was hardly in question as it was reverenced to in the 1539 work Introductio in Chaldaicam linguam, Syriacam atque Armenicam by the Pavian orientalist Albonesi. The contents and their quality were a different story entirely as no copies had been known to have survived.

 It was not until 1987 that a copy was finally found in the monastery Isola di San Michele in Venice by professor Angela Nuovo. Besides having survived in an admirable condition, it also held a note of ownership. It belonged to the Italian humanist Teseo Ambrogio degli Albonesi (1469-1540), and after his death to Arcangelo Mancasula, Vicar of the Holy Office of Cremona. It is likely that the book ended up in the monastery due to Mancusala’s connections.

With the book finally recovered scholars started to research the contents. It quickly became apparent that the book would have never been a viable product for export, and would likely even been seen as blasphemy by the Muslims. For starters the typeface used would have been seen as unacceptable by contemporary Muslim scholars and imams. Worse still was the numerous spelling errors made throughout the book, with professor Mahmoud Salem El Sheikh going as far as saying ‘There is not a word without errors,’. Absolutely unforgivable however were the errors in the actual verses. The translation itself was confusing at best, downright wrong at worst. Considering Islamic scribes at times where sentenced to death for mistakes made writing the holy Quran, the vast amount of problems with this book are quickly put into perspective. This Quran was simply a mess and would likely get some poor merchant soul thrown in prison or worse for attempting to sell in a Muslim port.


The Hamburg Quran

While the Paganini Quran was the first printed Quran, it was not the first attempt at translating it. The first translation dates to 1143 and was ordered by the abbot of Cluny Peter the Venerable. The commission was executed by the English scholar Robertus Ketenensius, or Robert of Ketton to friends. He made the translation in Toledo with the assistance of a native Arabian speaker. The Manuscripts where translated into Latin, and served as the basis for later translations in Italian, German, and Dutch. The book that will be discussed here however is that of Abraham Hinckelmann printed in 1694 in Hamburg.


 This Quran was edited carefully by Hinckelmann and was, although not perfect, a very much passable translation. It was however not a Quran like the Paganini version but a scholarly inspired work. Where previous works where often meant to help conversion of Muslims, or simply brought on by economic motives such as Paganini this version was meant as a study in to the Arabic language. Hinckelmann put himself on thin ice by doing so, as the Hebrew language was still seen as the divine precursor to all languages. Besides that it had been a mere decade since the Siege of Vienna (1983) by the Ottomans, and the Muslim world had not been seen as such an threat to Christianity since the crusades. In order to justify his book he included a foreword of 80 pages in which he explained his scholarly intentions. One of the clearest being;
“However, you certainly will not so easily find other languages which pour forth into the divine and the human sciences as does Arabic: far be it from us that we should neglect it! So far as theology is concerned, it is unbelievable what great light is shed upon the Hebrew Language … and sacred scriptures.”

 With his carefully thought out foreword Hinckelmann not only avoided blasphemy, he made his work essential for the study of the old testament and other early scriptures. So much so that a mere four years later Ludovico Marracci published his own, more complete Quran with the same intentions.

 The book was printed by standard mean, with only the Arabic title being done by a woodcut. The preface is entirely Latin, while the verses of the Quran itself are in vocalised Arabic. The fact that the book was an successful scholarly enterprise at the height of the Ottoman expansion is a testament to humanities will to learn and educate, to look beyond their own horizon. While I have no ties whatsoever with the auction, I feel as doing a disservice to the book if I were not to mention the book is available for auction:

Iranian Quran

For whatever reason the Muslim Empires and countries had a severe dislike of the printing press and did not start using it until the beginning of the 19th century. In the Ottoman Empire for example the use of a printing press by Muslims was strictly prohibited by law, at times the punishment for breaking said law being death. While Syrian Christians for example did use the press, none dared to print a Quran withing Muslim borders, or much Arabian works at all for that matter. In the Mughal empire there was a strong hesitation as well. For example in 1651 Sa’dullah Khan, a minister of the Mughal empire, refused to accept a printed Arabic book from a diplomatic mission.

Of course the printing press was too great an advantage to ignore indefinitely. One by one the Muslim nations started to accept the printing press. The Ottomans lifted their ban on it in 1727 and  Ibrahim Mutafarraqa set up the Islamic worlds first printing press in Istanbul. That same press had to be closed in 1742 due to severe opposition from both religious officials as the local population. Another press was erected in Lebanon in 1734, but this press printed mostly for Christian buyers and ran small numbers, probably a result of reluctance from Muslim buyers. Finally in 1822 a printing press of note was erected in Caïro, printing translated western books for the general market. Between 1822 and 1842 this press published 243 books in both Arabic and Turkish. 

The first Qurans started to be printed halfway through the 19th century. One of these came from Iran, where printing was at this time largely a state funded operation. Unfortunately little is known about this Quran. No place of publishing, exact date of publishing or note of ownership. It has been estimated that this Quran was printed somewhere in the second half of the 19th century. What makes this Quran so interesting is the way it has been printed, with much effort going in to making the printed book resemble the manuscripts of old.


The majority of the pages is occupied by elaborate decorations, as the handwritten Qurans had. Only a small rectangle in the middle is left to hold the sacred text, with only six lines of text per page. As this is one of the first Qurans to be printed the clear lines of the decorations is no surprise, after all whatever woodcut was used it hardly had any time gain any wear and tear. Even so the sophistication of the woodwork is nothing short of art, a sign of the reverence of both the printer and the woodworker. While the Islamic world was late to adopt the printing press and even later to print a Quran, when they finally did they showed the Europeans how it should be done.


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